It was a new Chris Gregoire at this morning's budget press conference, no longer willing to preside over billions in cuts to basic state services ("I can't live with it," she told reporters in Olympia) and instead now calling for a temporary half-cent sales tax increase to "buy back" a few fundamental things.
What exactly would her proposed sales tax, which would bring in about $550 million each year, save from the chopping block?
Technically, nothing—at least not at first.
Unless the legislature finds other ways to raise revenue during the upcoming special and regular sessions, it will have to pass an all-cuts budget that, as Gregoire has proposed it, would fill the state's current $2 billion shortfall by shortening the school year, cutting funding for rural school districts, letting prisoners out early, scaling back supervision of dangerous convicts once they are released, continuing to pull money out of higher education, and taking services away from people with developmental disabilities.
But, if Gregoire gets what she's asking for—what she's going to "hit the road" to stump for tomorrow in a one-day blast through Vancouver, Yakima, Spokane, and Seattle—the legislature, in its upcoming sessions, will find the simple majority necessary to send a referendum to the people, to be voted on in March, that would raise the state sales tax by half a penny for three years in order to reverse all of the above-mentioned cuts.
In other words, the $550 million a year raised via the temporary sales tax increase would "buy back" the current school year, funding for rural education, full time served for prisoners, higher education funding, and so on.
“It’s everybody stepping up and taking ownership of the State of Washington," Gregoire said. “When the voters vote, they will know what they are buying.”
Of course, it's a regressive way of buying back these state services, since a sales tax disproportionally impacts poor Washingtonians.
But Gregoire maintained that she doesn't have any other option. Voters rejected an income tax on the state's wealthiest citizens last year, and she said she doesn't have the power to move forward on a capital gains tax proposal that's been circulating.
In addition to her proposed sales tax increase, Gregoire is also offering the legislature $59 million in revenue alternatives that it could achieve with a simple majority vote, and $282 million it could achieve with a two-thirds majority vote. But she expressed great pessimism that the legislature would do either of those things.
So, she said, she just wants the legislature to muster the simple majority necessary to put the half-cent sales tax increase in front of voters in March. Asked whether she was trying to scare Washingtonians with talk of early prisoner releases, unsupervised ex-cons, and mentally unstable people wandering the streets, Gregoire said she was just telling the truth about what's to come without more revenue.
"This is not about scare tactics," Gregoire said. "I am being honest with the state of Washington… These are the facts. Look for yourself."